Undoing the 'catastrophic mistake' of Pontiac's Woodward Loop

"Chokehold." "Strangled." "Catastrophic mistake." Local stakeholders don't mince words when describing the one-way loop at Woodward Avenue's northern terminus and the effect it's had on downtown Pontiac.

 

Respectively, those three colorful descriptions come from prominent Pontiac developer Kyle Westberg, Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman, and Birmingham-based urban planner Robert Gibbs.

 

The evolution of Westberg's Lafayette Market business more or less summarizes the common argument against the Woodward loop, which encircles downtown Pontiac. When Westberg opened the shop downtown in 2012, it included a cafe and a full-service grocery store. The cafe is still doing well today, but the grocery store has been pared back to just a beer and wine department.

 

Westberg says that's at least partly because Pontiac residents simply don't want to deal with the hassle of circumnavigating downtown on the Woodward Loop or attempting to cross it on foot, to get to his store. They're more likely to head out to big-box stores on the city's fringes than to shop in their own downtown.

 

"(The Loop) turned a nice, loveable downtown into a racetrack to get cars around," Westberg says. "It's been bad urban design from day one."

 

A long time coming

 

Plans to reconfigure the Loop to a more welcoming two-way design are gaining traction. The Michigan Department of Transportation's (MDOT) Oakland County transportation service center (TSC) is currently awaiting state approval to begin design work on a two-way layout for the road. Preliminary plans re-envision the current western side of the loop as the main through route for the area, with the eastern side renamed Parke Street and serving as a local route to downtown. Bike lanes, more pedestrian crossings, and median refuge islands are proposed to make the redesigned roadway more navigable for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike.

 

But these developments are the result of over a decade of discussion – and over a half-century of the current configuration's existence. The one-way loop was originally implemented in 1964 in what Oakland County planning manager Bret Rasegan describes as a "well-intended" effort to prepare for increased traffic volumes that never materialized.

 

"They thought it was good for broader regional traffic flow as well as good for the businesses, but ... unfortunately, in hindsight, we feel that it harmed the downtown by creating that barrier and cutting the neighborhoods off from downtown," Rasegan says.

 

A two-way reconfiguration of the Loop was first formally documented in a 2001 plan drawn up by the Pontiac Downtown Development Authority, and the concept was subsequently adopted into the city's master plan. However, it was done largely without the awareness or involvement of MDOT, which has jurisdiction over Woodward as a state highway.

 

The project regained steam in 2010, when the county was awarded a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to study and develop alternatives for the Loop, including conversion of Woodward to two-way traffic, a road diet and renaming to Parke Street of the eastern branch of the Loop to create a local route, and numerous traffic calming measures and pedestrian and bike infrastructure. The resulting 2014 study was further refined and linked to a larger revisualization of downtown Pontiac in a 2016 design charrette and report led by the national nonprofit Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).

The preferred alternative for the Pontiac Loop. Map courtesy of Oakland County Planning.

 

A market study in the CNU report found that reconfiguration of the Woodward loop, along with other significant changes to downtown Pontiac, could activate over 200,000 square feet of new retail development and reclaim up to $55 million in sales annually. Gibbs' firm, Gibbs Planning Group, led that market study.

 

"It's a pretty conservative analysis," Gibbs says. "We're still assuming 80 or 90 percent of the spending potential's going to go outside of Pontiac."

 

As these studies came out, Rasegan and other county staff repeatedly brought the Woodward issue up in quarterly meetings with MDOT.

Bret Rasegan. Photo by Doug Coombe.

 

"It just kept being reintroduced to (MDOT director Kirk) Steudle and those guys at the state," Rasegan says. "It finally, I think, took hold that it had merit for them to get involved with and be more proactive."

 

MDOT recently completed a preliminary study on the Loop, largely adhering to the plan laid out in the 2014 study with some minor tweaks, including adding another northbound lane to the eastern "Parke Street" side of the Loop to accommodate revised traffic projections. Oakland TSC manager Sandy Montes says the plan "improves the sense of space and the livability," in downtown Pontiac.

 

"We don't want to degrade the operations to the point where we're fixing one problem for pedestrians and then creating a huge problem for motorists," she says. "You have to find that balance, and we think we've struck a pretty good balance now."

 

The role of the Phoenix Center

 

The Woodward Loop isn't the only roadway with an access problem in downtown Pontiac. The CNU's 2016 study also called out the Phoenix Center, the large and mostly unused parking garage and public plaza at downtown's southern end, as "a large obstacle preventing cars and people moving through the center." The Phoenix Center sits smack in the middle of Saginaw Street, which bisects the Woodward loop, blocking another potential main artery for the city.

 

Opinions differ as to the preferred alternative for the center. The CNU study recommended refurbishing the center and eventually demolishing portions of it to reconnect Saginaw. The city attempted to condemn and demolish the structure in 2012. But any action on the site is complex because while the city owns the center itself, the adjacent Ottawa Towers and Lot 9 parking lot are privately owned. Rasegan and Montes say plans for the Woodward loop have not addressed the Phoenix Center by necessity.

 

"Our plan works whether it's there or whether it's not there," Montes says.

 

The center's fate has shifted multiple times even just this year. Australian software company BoonEx announced plans to buy the Phoenix Center and Ottawa Towers in January but terminated that deal in February while stating that it was still pursuing a deal to purchase the center alone. Waterman describes the current plan for the center succinctly: "In progress."

 

"That is not the linchpin for the Woodward Loop," she says.

 

Redefining the template

 

At this point, the biggest impediment to further progress on reconfiguring the Woodward Loop is money. Montes estimates the cost of the project at $15 million to $20 million. Rasegan says that's "not cheap, but as far as state road projects go it's not insurmountable either." Compare that to, say, MDOT's ongoing $1.3 billion reconstruction and widening of I-75 in Oakland County.
Sandy Montes. Photo by Doug Coombe.

 

Woodward is a different kind of project for MDOT. The state usually does road work to relieve congestion, fix safety issues, or address physical deterioration of a roadway. The Woodward loop checks none of those boxes.

 

"It goes against the triggers that would typically fund a road construction project," Rasegan says.

 

Because the impetus for the Loop project is economic development and quality of life, Montes says MDOT doesn't have a "template" for the reconstruction. But she expresses optimism that a blend of state funding, grants, and private funding will move the project forward eventually.

 

"I would hope we can find the funding quickly, but it's hard to say," she says. "This is a unique project, and it's going to take some creativity."

 

Montes anticipates that her bosses in Lansing will hand down a ruling on preliminary plans for the loop reconfiguration within a couple of months. She says state approval for the $1 million to $1.5 million required to move into the design phase would be a "giant step" towards realizing the plan, although she estimates it would still take a couple of years to muster construction funding.

Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman. Photo by Doug Coombe.

 

But Pontiac has seen numerous unlikely, transformative developments since the dark period of its emergency management, and so the time seems ripe to move the project forward, according to Waterman, who says this project is just the next natural step for the resurgent city.


"The Woodward Loop is another one of those challenges that, with the right consortium and the right support, we could achieve," she says. "I like to be very optimistic, realizing optimism is tempered. There's just overcoming a lot of challenges, bringing a lot of people together, getting the right support, and having the right message."
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